Joke, Threat, Obvious
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MICAH LOEWINGER And I'm Micah Loewinger. To end the show, let's take a look at the best, the worst, the silliest, the dumbest, the most entertaining website on the Internet:.
YOUTUBER [TEARFULLY] Charlie bit me.
YOUTUBER Hey, everyone, this is Kenji Lopez, here at home. Today, I want to show you how to make probably the easiest pasta dish around cacio e pepe, it's kind of like Italian.
YOUTUBER This how I start my makeup routine. Sometimes I put my eyebrows up to get my skin first. I don't know why to that, but we're going to skip that part and just go right into.
YOUTUBER I was hitting some nasty shots, did you see that?
YOUTUBER Serious video today. I was a loser. You know, I was that kid that sat at the table with three other people that were also like the Super Rejects. That was me.
YOUTUBER I got 100 of my subscribers and gave them each $10,000. And I also rented one of the largest malls in the world and locked them inside.
BEN SHAPIRO These are facts. And facts don't care about your feelings.
YOUTUBER Yeah, there was a survey that went out recently that it's like more kids want to be professional YouTubers than astronauts. And everyone. Like, even I'm like, pfffft, that's so lame. But then I was like, 'hold up. I quit my dream job at NASA to make YouTube videos.' So I'm not really one to judge. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Today, YouTube is one of the biggest media companies in the world. In 2020, we uploaded 500 hours of footage to the site every minute, and on average we watched over 5 billion videos every day. It's a broadcasting machine so complex it would make Marshall McLuhan's head explode. I've been obsessed with YouTube since I was 13, which is why I was psyched to speak with journalist Mark Bergen and read his new book Like Comment Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination. According to Bergen, the founders of the site originally envisioned something more akin to Tinder than homemade TV.
MARK BERGEN And they thought that maybe dating would be the way in.
MICAH LOEWINGER They thought sex appeal was the only reason regular people would want to upload videos of themselves to YouTube. They posted on Craigslist offering $20 to women who would vlog on their site.
MARK BERGEN Google was launched at the same time. Google video, and one of the major reasons that it lost to YouTube is because Google just didn't think that people would want to watch nonprofessionals.
MICAH LOEWINGER Google bought the site for $1.6 billion in the fall of 2006, right around when the first wave of YouTubers began reaching thousands of subscribers through their webcams. Early stars that Bergen spoke to pointed to the same piece of inspiration. Lazy Sunday The SNL Digital Short, featuring Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell.
CLARA SORRENTI Lazy Sunday wake up in the late afternoon. Call Parnell just to see how he's doing. Hello what up Parn? What's whacking? Thinking what I'm thinking.[END CLIP]
MARK BERGEN It had this lo fi quality. A lot of early YouTubers didn't have a lot of camera equipment or green screens, things to compete with big media.
MICAH LOEWINGER There was also Smosh a channel I watched a lot when I was in middle school. Two guys named Anthony and Ian who acted out ironically bad skits.
SMOSH You're going to do so well on your driving test, Anthony. I just know it. Now give mommy a kiss.
ANTHONY Mom, no! [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The most subscribed channel for a while was run by this guy, Ray William Johnson, who curated viral videos with edgy commentary.
RAY WILLIAM JOHNSON You know, the walls of the Internet say that when you film yourself doing something even somewhat dangerous, you're supposed to fail so we can all laugh at you. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And then there were the Vlog Brothers featuring Hank Green, a charmingly dorky science teacher, and his brother, John Green, who is now known as a best selling YA author.
HANK GREEN Hello, John. By now you have received my message that we will no longer be communicating through any textual means. No more instant messaging, no more emailing. Only, video blogging. [END CLIP]
MARK BERGEN That was a new form of entertainment that these trailblazers were inventing.
MICAH LOEWINGER But at the end of the day, many of them were just hobbyists. That changed in 2007, when people like Hank Green from the Vlog Brothers started getting emails from new sites saying stuff like, We'll pay you to leave YouTube and join us.
HANK GREEN I remember reading these emails and being like, Whoa! You mean that I could potentially be getting paid for this? [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Green discussed this moment in a recent video.
HANK GREEN YouTube saw this as a tremendous threat, I think correctly, and they created the YouTube partner program, the one decision in the history of online media that has changed things more than anything else. Every advertisement that runs on a video on a creator's page, 55% is going to go to the creator. In 2020, YouTube made around $20 billion. 10 billion of those dollars went to creators. [END CLIP]
MARK BERGEN YouTube was extremely early and creator economy in this profession that didn't exist before. That same time YouTube came really late to the ideas and what they kind of called user generated content would actually be commercially successful. So for the first several years of the company, they actually went out and tried to recruit Shaquille O'Neal, Madonna, Tony Hawk. These are well-known celebrities and basically tried to turn A-listers into YouTubers. And I think there's always been this discrepancy between what people inside the company hope and wish for the platform to be and what it really is.
MICAH LOEWINGER One conversation around YouTube that I don't feel has really caught up to where it needs to be is like around kids content. The platform radically altered how kids watch and what they watch.
MARK BERGEN Because of the Children's Online Privacy Act, they didn't want to reach viewers under 13. And so they built this app, YouTube kids designed to be like this playground for kids under 13.
MICAH LOEWINGER This was a discrete app that was kind of like a walled off version of the site, or at least that's how it was marketed.
MARK BERGEN Right. A lot of parents assumed that meant that they were curating the videos and they weren't. Children were watching unsupervised in the main app. People were going to YouTube and searching for Frozen. They were searching for Spider-Man. They're searching for Elsa. And so you had a lot of creators just rushing to make content related to this popular trend. And then there were a lot of channels that started to take it to the very strange directions, either live action or animation. And they put Elsa and Spider-Man in sexual situations. Elsa-gate was a name for it. After that, YouTube in the fall of 2017 took a pretty extreme action and just like deleted thousands of channels and videos.
MICAH LOEWINGER I almost feel like the problem is more pernicious and more subtle than disturbing violent videos that your kid may or may not ever see. YouTube heavily rewards a certain kind of kid's content if you pull up social blade dot com or one of these sites that ranks YouTubers. If you go on that list, the largest American channel by subscriber count is Cocomelon.
[MUSIC PLAYS 'COCOMELON"]
MICAH LOEWINGER A nursery rhymes channel.
COCOMELON "Shoes and shoes. It's time to wear your shoes." [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER If you keep going down that list, there are tons of other kids channels. Like Nastya.
MICAH LOEWINGER Like nasty.
YOUTUBE Hi Nastya, I'm ready for a sleepover. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Kids Diana Show. Vlad and Nicky. Some of the biggest channels on YouTube period are kids channels. ]
MARK BERGEN That's totally right. They built the world's biggest kid's entertainment service, really without trying without acknowledging it for a long time. I mean, one thing that's important to remember is that American television does have rules and regulations around kids content. Right. There's a certain amount of educational programing that has to happen. You can't have promotional materials inside the programs. You have to make it very evident and clear when there's a commercial and when it's not. None of that exists on YouTube. And know there are ten criticisms of some of the most popular channels on YouTube that they are actually running 15, 20 minute long commercials.
PARENT This video features Ryan's world toys that Ryan helped create. Is this Ryan's robot? Well, you can move all the joints, so that's really cool. [END CLIP]
MARK BERGEN YouTube kids, it's changed pretty dramatically because they were regulated from the Federal Trade Commission in 2019.
MICAH LOEWINGER They were fined $170 million.
MARK BERGEN The largest fine ever. And that was for violating COPPA.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.
MARK BERGEN You off a lot of those popular channels. I think the major point is they're very understudied and under scrutinized. I struggle to find researchers who spend their time with childhood development and psychology expertize that like watch a lot of these popular YouTubers and unpack really what's happening in the videos. And I think that's something that really needs to change since there's an entire generation that's being raised not on television, but on YouTube.
MICAH LOEWINGER In his book, Mark Bergen writes about this phrase that was often repeated inside the company. Joke, Threat, Obvious, which explains the three phases of growth in a successful startup. Early on, YouTube was perceived as a joke. People in the press and in Silicon Valley would refer to it as the site where people go to watch videos of dogs, skateboarding or whatever. Nowadays, skipping ahead, YouTube is obvious. It's obviously the place where long form video lives. But in that middle phase, YouTube was considered a threat to so many different kinds of people. Copyright holders, it was sued by Viacom for $1,000,000,000. It was a threat to parents, as we've discussed, a threat to advertisers, which we'll get to in a minute and a threat to the news media. Bergen describes the moment that TV news realized that YouTube could deliver something it couldn't. What he describes as YouTube's Edward R Murrow moment.
MARK BERGEN Television wasn't really considered like a serious medium until Murrow started to showed this, like, very visceral footage of the Korean War.
EDWARD R MURROW This is Korea. This is the front. Just there? No man's land begins. And on the ridges over there, the enemy positions can be clearly seen. [END CLIP]
MARK BERGEN YouTube and social media had that same effect during the Iranian Revolution in 2009. People were taking the grainy cell phone footage of the protests in Iran, and it was coming out on YouTube, not on cable TV.
MICAH LOEWINGER And you mentioned this moment of a CNN producer calling YouTube and asking, like how they'd gotten all this footage from Iran.
MARK BERGEN Right. So much of YouTube's expansion globally in their first few years was fighting to stay alive. Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan threatened or at times blacked out YouTube and the company back then had a much more aggressive stance on like opposing the demands of government, even from the U.S. government.
MICAH LOEWINGER YouTube was confronted with a responsibility that it seems like it maybe never meant to have – which is deciding which kinds of speech should be kept up. You wrote about this meeting in 2016 where YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki just was bombarded with complaints from female creators on the platform about the amount of harassment they received in the comment section, which we all know can be a special pit of hell. And also harassment from other YouTubers. In 2019, the company rolled out stricter moderation policies aimed at reducing this type of misogyny. But even this month, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit, found that harassment against women on the platform is still pretty rampant.
MARK BERGEN What was really interesting about that harassment policy is like they kind of initially wrote in this loophole and we cannot allow criticism and potentially offensive things being said about public figures. But then, you know, YouTube as a platform was invented, though it turn anyone into a public figure.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anyone who turns the camera on themselves is a public figure.
MARK BERGEN That's right. They have an exemption for satire. But then in their rulebook, you can't after the post is gone up and say, I was just joking, which has happened all the time. And like YouTube has struggled with this. In their defense, it is a very hard problem to identify what satire and what's bullying. I'm not excusing them like this is a problem that they created and probably a very foreseeable one.
MICAH LOEWINGER The company has had evolving policies around removing content that has extreme violence, depict hate groups, terrorist recruitment videos. But you describe moments where it felt like enforcement was a bit ad hoc.
MARK BERGEN The critical turning point was ISIS. And so in 2014, ISIS was posting a lot of propaganda and extremely violent beheading videos on YouTube and particularly in Europe. Google was just berated for hosting and propagating ISIS propaganda. And so the company in 2017 decided, okay, we're not going to just remove these videos, but we're going to remove the rhetoric behind this and basically remove the ideology. And they took a very strict and strong stance against Islamist terror and ISIS. My reporting shows that there were people inside YouTube that basically were only applying this to one particular radical group for not applying the same tools and policies against, in particular, white nationalists and white supremacists.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is such a classic dynamic in American politics where no one bats an eye at censoring Islamist extremism. But when it comes to, like, our American brand of extremism, it's so much more fraught.
MARK BERGEN YouTube will say that, listen, we're following governments here like they look to the U.K. in U.S. terrorist registries and it's easier. There are actual lists that YouTube follows. This month, in September, YouTube announced that they're finally going to start expanding their definition of violent extremism beyond terrorist registries.
MICAH LOEWINGER The companies reluctance at times to play speech police came to a head with a giant controversy that we now call today the ad-pocalypse. It started when journalists in the U.K. and the U.S. began to document instances in which YouTube's automated ad system had placed commercials on extremist content. For instance, a Wall Street Journal reporter found a Crest advertisement on a video titled A 6000 Year History of the Jew World Order. In effect, Crest was paying the YouTube channel that uploaded that video. Naturally, a lot of companies freaked out.
NEWS REPORT Major brands like Pepsi, Starbucks and Walmart,.
NEWS REPORT Verizon, Johnson, Johnson, these big companies, they've just found out that their ads are being played before some pretty offensive content and they want it to stop. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The brand said, We're not advertising on YouTube until you fix this. And eventually they did. But the boycott caused two things to happen. YouTube started aggressively monetizing all kinds of videos, in some cases taking ads off of high quality videos that didn't appear to have anything explicit in them. And two, it caused revenue for many creators to plunge.
YOUTUBER The ad pocalypse.
YOUTUBER There's not enough ads to go around on YouTube for everybody. Many of my videos are making like 20% of what they were just one week ago.
YOUTUBER This event changed the landscape of YouTube, and every creator to this day still feels the backlash. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This triggered a massive crisis of faith.
MARK BERGEN Oh, God, yeah. I mean, that was a year later that there was a troubled YouTuber, came in with a gun and shot their campus because of the policies. So, like, it had real ramifications that like hit home. Its become a little bit more stable for the top tier of YouTube creators. But there are a lot of creators that aren't in that category. They have no guarantee that tomorrow they'll be making the same amount money or any money at all.
MICAH LOEWINGER Toward the end of your book. You pose this question that had been articulated inside the company, which YouTube or maybe put another way, who's YouTube? Meaning, like what version of this site do we want to make? What do you think is so important about that question?
MARK BERGEN For one that speaks to this interesting tension inside the company between what it sees itself and how it actually is? I think it's a bigger question of like, what do we want from this very powerful media platform? One executive at YouTube kind of talks about how they accidentally built this repository for like human memory. Like a human brain. Whose brain and who's collected memory are we uploading into this? Right. It's kind of reflective of all of us.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah. Is it a brain? Is it our memory? I almost feel like it's something entirely different. It might shape our behavior, but to see it as, like 1 to 1 library, I feel like that's almost kind of dishonest. And in fact, in the conclusion of your book, you quote one longtime YouTube executive who's responding to like the constant barrage of criticism. This person says, don't blame the mirror. And I'm like: is YouTube a mirror? Do you think it's a mirror?
MARK BERGEN No, I don't think so. I mean, like in the simple version, if it was a mirror and have a lot more porn. You know, it doesn't reflect all of humanity, and we can be thankful. In some ways, it's no longer a mirror to help information. There are certain types of health videos that are no longer allowed on the site, and that's probably good for public health reasons during the pandemic. It is no longer a mirror of all the spectrum of ideology in the world. Like do we want a $30 billion advertising business to be running white supremacy? There's an expression inside you, too. The audience is king, and that gives them this idea that, you know, the algorithm and what's Washington popular is is us. We're the ones dictating the direction to go. And I think that's partially true. But I think something it's my book shows the company plays a very significant role in it, not just what we watch, but what's actually made.
MICAH LOEWINGER Mark, thank you very much.
MARK BERGEN Yeah, thanks for having me. It was a great convo.
MICAH LOEWINGER Mark Bergen is a reporter at Bloomberg and the author of Like Comment Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination. YouTube may not be a mirror, but when I look at it, I do see something grim staring back at me. And it's not my made for radio face. It's an attention economy that's grown to an incomprehensible scale while journalism is faltering. I see videos of a teenage gamer in his bedroom reaching more viewers than a deeply reported article in The New York Times. And I'm not complaining about that. My industry could learn from YouTube – how to build broader communities for what we provide. We once treated it as a joke and still treat it as a threat. Maybe it's time to embrace the obvious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Micah Loewinger is OTMs correspondent.